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Winter Kills

Winter Kills
Anchor Bay
1979 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 97 min. / Street Date March 18, 2003 / $29.98
Starring Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Sterling Hayden, Dorothy Malone, Tomas Milian, Belinda Bauer, Ralph Meeker, Toshiro Mifune, Richard Boone, David Spielberg, Brad Dexter
Cinematography Vilmos Zsigmond
Production Designer Robert F. Boyle
Art Direction Norman Newberry
Film Editor David Bretherton
Original Music Maurice Jarre
Written by William Richert from the book by Richard Condon
Produced by Daniel H. Blatt, Fred C. Caruso, Leonard Goldberg, Robert Sterling
Directed by William Richert

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Possibly the tail end of the first wave of paranoid conspiracy films that grew from the spy caper (The President's Analyst) and found its highest point in The Parallax View, Winter Kills is a wildly disjointed thriller about the vain attempts of a brother of a slain President to get to the truth of the assassination. The engagingly likeable Jeff Bridges spends much of his time on wild goose chases that keep us thoroughly confused. The all-star cast turn in fun performances, but most are one-scene one-shots. Several, like Elizabeth Taylor, are barely in a couple of shots each. A political Alice Through the Looking Glass populated by stereotyped gangsters & sinister millionaires, William Richert's sumptuously-produced film takes on dead-serious issues with a flip semi-comic style that's never dull. It is, however, maddeningly difficult to follow.


Surviving half brother of a beloved President assassinated in 1960, Nick Kegan (Jeff Bridges) is startled when the family odd-job operative Keifitz (Richard Boone) brings him a man dying from an oil rig accident, Arthur Fletcher (Joe Spinell) who confesses to having been the second shooter in the long-ago killing. Determined to unearth the truth, Nick is sent on a wild Odyssey across America by his domineering tycoon father, Pa Kegan (John Huston), a crazy womanizer and weaver of intricate conspiracies. Not only do many of those Nick contacts end up mysteriously dead within hours, but he finds out that some people very close to him, including Yvette Malone, the classy magazine editor he wants to marry (Belinda Bauer), aren't who he thinks they are. Someone is going to a lot of trouble to feed Nick gross mis-information, but who? Maniac millionaire Joe Diamond (Sterling Hayden)? Imprisoned Mafia chief Frank Mayo (Tomas Milian)? Pa Kegan himself? Or how about Pa's computer spy, John Cerruti (Anthony Perkins)?

Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate, in the stylish but methodical hands of John Frankenheimer, was a progressive black comedy about conspiracy in a politically-polarized America. But it was simply too early to fully capture the public imagination - the first Kennedy assassination was still a year away. A massive prestige success, Candidate nevertheless went over the heads of 1962 audiences, who preferred the no-brainer escapism of James Bond.

Seventeen years later, when paranoid conspiracy thrillers had already worn out their welcome, the same author's wild take on the Kennedy assassination became this post-Watergate black comedy. 1973's literal Executive Action had made the killing a plot by right-wing Texas millionaires, and only served to muddy the water. Impressively produced, Winter Kills was a jinxed production that only barely got made. Unfortunately, its purposely splintered storyline, and its minefield of flashy movie stars in bizarre roles, makes it an extremely difficult movie to understand, perhaps accounting for its poor reception in 1979.

There's so much fine work in Winter Kills, it's hard to know where to begin. Visually, the telling of the story couldn't be better. Jeff Bridges' Nick Kegan moves in a world of fantastic luxury, from the corporate oil tanker to the swank hotel suites and snooty restaurants. Kegan's lack of sinister ambition sets him apart from everyone else in this overpopulated picture, and Bridges' natural charm is what makes the film watchable.

Everyone else comes under the heading of one-scene irrelevance or purposeful misdirection. We're told later in the film that some of Kegan's crazy adventures, such as his absurd tank-battle interview with the Sterling Hayden character, were staged to deceive him. Winter Kills quickly establishes that nobody is telling Kegan the truth, so we never even begin to get a purchase on any of what we see. This kind of weirdness can have a kooky Lewis Carroll / funhouse zing, but most of the time we waste our time concentrating on story details that are purposeful blind alleys.

There is a large flashback section in 1960 with Eli Wallach, mostly told through rushed voceover, that is flatly impossible to follow or appreciate on a first viewing. The Big Sleep may have been confusing, but it at least gave us the implicit nod, that what we were watching might at some level make sense. Winter Kills' storytelling style is the narrative equivalent of throwing a bag over the audience's head and pushing it down some dark stairs.

The show has a fabulous cast, all doing fine work that largely serves to confuse things even more. Movie legends have bizarre walk-ons; when Elizabeth Taylor has no lines and is on-screen about 30 seconds, we begin to wonder if Winter Kills is a digest version of an original 4-hour cut. Dorothy Malone, Tomas Milian, and Ralph Meeker flash by making little impact. Director Richert proudly says that Toshiro Mifune's tiny bit is valuable - if John Huston's valet is the impressive Mifune, he reasons, think how powerful Huston's character must be. That isn't at all the effect we get when watching the film. When an icon like Mifune steps on-screen, audiences take ten seconds to adjust to the sight of him (probably missing any essential dialogue that may be spoken) and then assume he has something important to contribute. When that doesn't happen, we just feel lost.

Behind all the fancy plot footwork, the rest of the film is cartoonishly obvious. Crazy millionaires play real war games in real tanks. The Manhattan siren is a hot lay in bed, but a cold adventuress on her feet. The decadence on view is cynical, and somewhat trite. Zillionaires go around with high-class callgirls attending to their needs - on golf courses, in hospital rooms. Dick Tracy-league gangsters hulk around looking sinister, to little effect. A vast computer network (yawn) is the center of a conspiracy of intelligence that secretly controls, it seems, the destiny of the country.

It's natural in a conspiracy film that nothing can be trusted. In this show, everything we see might be a con or a fake, and everything we hear is a lie. Kegan is told at regular intervals that most of the people he's seen have mysteriously died, except for crotchety Richard Boone, reprising his role, more or less, from the superior The Kremlin Letter. For all we know, the shipboard confession was a fake, and Kegan's girlfriend really was a magazine editor and not a deep-cover agent. With disinformation mastermind Anthony Perkins pulling the strings, who can tell?

Bellicose John Huston as Kegan's Machiavellian, overbearing father is fun to watch, as is the impenetrably Mabusian Anthony Perkins. Each fingers the other as the arch-fiend responsible for the assassination - Huston was forced by Perkins to live his sultan-like life of excess, it seems. Perkins (the best thing in the film, next to Bridges) weaves crazy verbal webs that really do pull us into a nightmarish conspiratorial vortex: he's the string-puller that Kafka's doomed heroes are always convinced are listening in the next room. 1

Savant can't judge if the dissatisfaction with Winter Kills is because of the impenetrability of its story, or Richert's sometimes inadequate direction. The skyscraper showdown at the end has little impact and seems rushed, and (spoiler) John Huston's exit goes against the nature of the character. A man with the will to kill his own sons to get ahead, and the power to cover up anything, isn't really cornered, and therefore shouldn't do what he does.

One way to explain Winter Kills is to see it as an updated Confidential Report (Mr. Arkadin), Orson Welles' story about a corrupt tycoon who uses a hired detective to help him locate and eliminate everyone living with a clue to his wicked past. That appears to be what's happening here, with Nick Kegan's every contact getting killed soon thereafter (or so we're told, by unreliable sources). Why Pa Kegan (or Cerruti) should think Nick will not simply write down what he knows, is the failing of both conspiracy movies, and real-life conspiracies as well. Even Fritz Lang knew that a few papers in a safe deposit box will stop the baddies cold (The Big Heat), or at least exact justice for the unlucky witness, should he get knocked off. If we're willing to believe that the Powers That Be control the banks and everything else in such detail that what we do, write, and say is irrelevant, than perhaps Winter Kills is dead-on accurate.

Anchor Bay's DVD of Winter Kills is an exciting presentation that surrounds the jinxed show with fascinating documentation. Director William Richert and Jeff Bridges are on hand, along with other cast members like Belinda Bauer, to tell the story of an independent that went wildly off-course. The adage that if a movie is big enough, nothing can stop its production, was proven false when unions shut down the show, spreading fear and loathing among its (previously soft-porn) producers. Separately and together in a pair of extra interviews, Richert and Bridges have no trouble dropping potentially libelous hints about drug use, mob money, and even the murder of one of the producers. It actually gets a bit scary: how can they be sure there isn't some John Cerruti out there monitoring DVD docus, ready to wipe out people, even movie stars, with loose tongues? 2

The docu and voiceover help us appreciate the film's sterling production values, with Vilmos Zsigmond on hand to talk about the cinematography (how he thinned out fat-faced Liz Taylor with a trick lens from Panavision). Robert Boyle talks about the crew's enthusiasm for the project, which was sufficient to bridge ridiculous breaks in production, not to mention the alleged mob presence. Other tales, of Richard Boone's drinking, Sterling Hayden's pot-smoking in a Manhattan hotel, and Liz Taylor's leopard coat affair, are world-class Hollywood gossip.  3

The transfer of Winter Kills is beautifully-enhanced and brings out the full impact of every handsome set; I'd only seen the film on television and I think this is the first widescreen video version. A final aside - genre fans can see femme favorites Tisa Farrow, Candace Rialson, Camilla Sparv, and Erin Gray peppered here and there as various sultry callgirls, adding more spice to the director's very male-oriented 'vision'.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Winter Kills rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by William Richert, interviews with Richert and Jeff Bridges, still and art galleries, trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 22, 2003


1. Perkin's Cerruti is an excellent reverse of his 'K' in Orson Welles The Trial - essentially the same guy, only secure in his little dynasty of power.

2. The stories of Union 'organizers' shutting down the picture are credible enough. On 1941, we miniature makers made our own molds for a number of models against the rules of the plasterer's union. It wasn't long before we had 'visitors' in the form of white-haired men in dark glasses, white shoes and natty checquered suits, snooping around and intimidating us with questions.

3. Savant has another take on the Liz Taylor fur coat scandal. A close friend knew the assistant wardrobe person who, as part of her job, personally signed for the borrowed leopard coat from a top Beverly Hills furrier. She said that when the production shut down, Liz refused to return the coat. The poor assistant wardrobe person was stuck in the middle, threatened with legal action by the furrier. Everybody on the film who could intervene had simply vanished. Liz couldn't be bothered with anyone else's little problems, like going to jail. My friend's friend had no choice but to make an unprofessional pariah of herself, by begging an established Hollywood costume legend who knew Liz, to intercede and get the coat back. She had to change jobs - happily, to production design, where she's still working. Lessons: never be the powerless fall guy; don't trust selfish, decadent movie stars. (note: This is second-hand info, 25 years old)

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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